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Restoring Creativity in the High School Classroom

By Nathan Sun-Kleinberger — February 06, 2013 5 min read
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Story time is an integral part of my family’s bedtime routine. Each night as we read, I ask my 4-year-old Aviva to look at the pictures and predict what will happen in the story. I ask her to repeat words and phrases. I read with lots of expression. I want our stories to come alive.

Recently, we’ve added a new wrinkle to our routine: creating our own stories. I purchased a set of fairy tale story cards that feature princesses, witches, trolls, treasure chests, and so on. Each of us draw three random cards and connect them together to create an original fairy tale.

I am a high school English teacher—and, it turns out, a terrible story-teller. After three rounds, I run out of ideas. But my daughter can go on for hours. You might think my reserve of life experience would enrich my storytelling. Yet Avi—unfettered from the noise of the outside world—is the one whose mind is full of possibilities.

The Creativity Conundrum

I see the same phenomenon with my students. By the time they enter my classroom, they are so self-conscious, they’ve forgotten how to be creative. Recently, my 11th graders were working on persuasive essays. I challenged them to connect the specifics of what they were writing about to a broader, universal theme like courage or success. Why did their essays matter, in the big picture? They looked at me helplessly. They were so concerned about getting the wrong answer or being ridiculed by their peers that they immediately clammed up.

Sir Ken Robinson would not be surprised by this. As he explained in his 2006 TED Talk: “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Often we are educated out of it.” Today’s education system is based upon a 19th-century model that prepared students to work in factories—yet thinking creatively is essential for many 21st-century jobs. Robinson urges us to guide our students to become divergent thinkers: “It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question … to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.”

How can I help my students retain their ability to think divergently, to generate possibilities, to push against boundaries? Here are three strategies I use.

Cultivating “Worldly” Thinkers

The AP Language and Composition course focuses on the art of rhetoric. Students who perform well in the course and the AP exam are able to draw upon many “worlds” to help ground their position in an argument. This gives me the opportunity to push students to use the worlds that are prevalent in modern society in their writing: news, literature, pop culture, history, technology, etc.

For example, each week, I assign students a “beat” related to sections in the newspaper: the arts, politics, education, etc. Students find an op-ed related to their beat and connect it to an AP prompt. How does the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre relate to a H.L. Mencken quote about the tension between safety and freedom? How does the Occupy Wall Street movement tie to historian Daniel Boorstin’s definition of dissent? By finding ways to connect discursive worlds to challenging essay prompts, my AP students practice thinking divergently in their writing.

Revisiting What Students Think They Know

I love teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to challenge my sophomores’ assumptions about the novel. As a pre-reading strategy, my students draw a picture of Frankenstein. Most of them draw a picture of an enormous green monster with a block head and bolts coming out of its neck (an image that comes from James Wales’ 1931 film, not Shelley’s novel).

After we finish reading the book, the students write an essay identifying “the real monster of the story.” Some condemn Victor Frankenstein for being a terrible father. Others blame the Creature for murdering innocent victims. One of my students even blamed humanity for having hubris and being xenophobic.

I enjoy watching my students’ perceptions evolve. They go from thinking the text is a simple horror story to comprehending the novel’s complex themes, like monstrosity, megalomania, and negligence. Students become divergent thinkers when their assumptions are challenged, when they can see the same text from many different perspectives.

Tapping Into Passion

To graduate from high school, my students must write a persuasive essay that relates to a future career or a passion they are interested in exploring. When I initially talk about the structure of the essay, the students end up writing an essay they think I would want to hear. Many seem to choose the safe route in order to earn an A, rather than being guided by their personal interests. Common topics include whether doctors should be sued for malpractice, should police engage in racial profiling, or if Wall Street should be regulated by the federal government. All these topics address the prompt, but there is no passion in my students’ writing. When they play it safe, their creativity suffers.

Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, notes that in 2010 thirty-six percent of Princeton graduates took a career in finance because it was a safe path for them to reach financial stability. While there is nothing inherently wrong about earning lots of money, Tough argues that these same graduates could end up being “kids who worked very hard but never had to make a difficult decision or confront a real challenge and so entered the adult world competent but lost.” In other words, these students conform because it is safe, which benefits them financially, but ultimately they may be unable to face obstacles or think divergently.

With this in mind, I now ask my students to compose a first draft drawing upon their passions. Since I have employed this approach, students have written essays on topics like whether Disney cartoons promote stereotypes about women, if art therapy is effective in treating autism, and should NASA invest in developing a rail gun as a new form of space travel. When I ask my students to write about what they are interested in without judgment, they have the courage to think divergently and explore their passions. As a result, I have the opportunity to help them find connections between their passions and potential careers.

Hope for the Hopeless

Tomorrow is a school day. Avi needs to go to sleep. I am tired and feign interest in the story cards. I draw three cards from the pile: a witch, a princess, and a hungry wolf. Yet again, my mind goes blank. Avi says to me “C’mon daddy, what story did you come up with?”

I close my eyes. I think about all the obstacles that will inhibit Avi’s creativity from now to graduation day. I take a deep breath. I begin with “Once upon a time a wolf and a witch were hungry for a princess who loved to read books … “

“I like the beginning, Daddy,” Avi says encouragingly, “But, I hope it gets more interesting.”

Maybe I should take my daughter’s comment fatalistically, but I am hopeful. If she believes I have potential, then I am confident her potential is limitless.


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